10 years after 9/11, where are the iconic plays?
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) — Susan Charlotte’s play “The Shoemaker” opens with a customer barging into a closed Midtown shoe store on what is later revealed to be the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Excuse me, lady, but we’re closed,” says the shoemaker.
“But you can’t be,” says the distraught woman. “My soul is broken.”
So begins one of the few plays to deal with 9/11 that has emerged in the decade since the attacks — an assault that took place only miles from the commercial heart of American theater, Broadway.
There have been dozens of great films, books, poems, songs and TV series specifically addressing 9/11 or its legacy — from Don DeLilillo’s “Falling Man” to Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” to the small-screen firehouse drama “Rescue Me.”
But where are the iconic Sept. 11 plays?
“I don’t know why our playwrights in America do not deal with this subject,” says Danny Aiello, who starred in the title role of “The Shoemaker,” which closed off-Broadway on June 14. “We thought there’d be a flood of stuff.”
While the attacks prompted dozens of small works for the stage in the months immediately following Sept. 11 — and the upcoming 10th anniversary promises another flurry of pieces — no single work has emerged as a definitive theatrical statement akin to Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Rising.”
“It would seem that the theater community has dealt with 9/11 in a much more timid way than might have been expected at this point,” says playwright Neil LaBute, one of the first to write about the horrors. “There doesn’t seem to be a huge number of major works that have been thematically dedicated to those events.”
The lack is puzzling since theater hasn’t shied away from exploring other big, global topics. The Vietnam war and the counterculture has been portrayed in “Hair”; rape and the subjugation of women in war was the topic of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”; and anti-communism blacklisting during the 1950s stalked Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
AIDS, which wiped out so many creative people, has sparked some of America’s greatest theater, including Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and William Hoffman’s “As Is.” And even the Iraq war inspired Rajiv Joseph’s powerful “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” this season on Broadway.
So why in 10 years hasn’t there emerged a similar stage masterpiece about 9/11? One reason may be that the global events that led to the attack and the sudden violence of that awful day aren’t easy to portray theatrically.
“The event itself does not follow a dramatic structure, in that there is no rising action, there is no build up to it. Everyone was going about their day and then there was catastrophe and aftermath,” says Howard Sherman, a veteran arts executive who led the American Theater Wing for eight years.
Another reason, he suspects, is that 9/11 was both too overwhelming and too intimate: “The effect was so personal and so profound on everyone in New York and in radiating circles beyond that, it becomes a difficult to find a story that is universal about the experience.”
Of course, making sense of 9/11 may be a hopeless task, whether on or off the stage, which is perhaps why so many people complain that most of the art generated by 9/11 has been unsatisfying.
“It’s very much like the Holocaust, really,” says director Rupert Goold in an interview from London. “When staring at enormity, dramatic artists find it intimidating and hubristic to say, ‘I shall go to the heart of this tragedy.”’
Goold, who brought to America a thrilling Patrick Stewart-led revival of “Macbeth” and last year’s “Enron,” is putting together one of the most anticipated theatrical events on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
In an unused building along the River Thames, his company will present “Decade,” an immersive theatrical piece written by a collection of playwrights, including Christopher Shinn, John Logan and Nottage. By freeing any single writer from the burden of having to write The Great 9/11 Play, the piece will have an abstract, dreamy quality.
“We talked a lot about what a bad 9/11 show would look like — anything that tried to representationally recreate the events would be fairly tasteless, anything that had an obvious political line,” says Goold. “It’s a fragile thing.”
On this shore, several new works have debuted or are set to debut in the coming weeks, including “By the Dawn’s Early Light,” two new one-acts by Mel Nieves on Theatre Row about 9/11’s impact on three Latino families. And “Invasion!” at The Flea Theater, which has been brought back after its debut last year, explores prejudice faced by Middle Easterners.
There’s also “Point of Departure” at the Theater for the New City, which looks at a post-9/11 airport terminal, and “The Shoemaker,” which was expanded from its original one act into a full-length play.
Another new work is Tony Award-winner Richard Nelson’s “Sweet and Sad” at the Public Theater, the second installment of his four-part cycle exploring the state of the nation through stories about the Apple family. The new work — again set around the Apples’ dinner table in Rhinebeck, N.Y., but this time on Sept. 11, 2011 — addresses loss, memory, remembrance and the meaning of compensation.
Nelson says that even though there may not be many plays that directly address 9/11, that doesn’t mean that day hasn’t found its way into hundreds of scripts.
“I think the repercussions of 9/11 are in many, many plays in the last 10 years: The feelings of things being ripped out from under you suddenly. One moment it’s one thing and the next it’s another — that sense of lack of solid footing, that sense of being adrift,” he says. “All of those things have been very much present in a lot of plays in the last decade.”
One of the first works to deal with the terrorist attacks was “The Guys,” which debuted off-Broadway by the end of 2001. Anne Nelson’s play is a dialogue between a fire captain who has lost most of his men and an editor who helps him write their eulogies. It is being revived this season at small theaters with one of its original stars, Sigourney Weaver. It opens Sept. 6.
Nelson acknowledged “The Guys” has had limited commercial appeal, but says she wanted her work to stand as a kind of moment of silence.
“Part of Osama bin Laden’s strategy was to create an overwhelming spectacle, which, to my mind, played to some of the weaknesses of our culture,” says Nelson, whose play was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Weaver. “We went through a period of intense tape-looping on television. We were traumatized and re-traumatized by the spectacle.
“So when we were first working on ‘The Guys,’ we backed away from a larger budget. We didn’t want any spectacle, or images of violence. We knew that would make for a smaller audience, but it would allow us to make a tiny cultural footprint that says here is something different.”
By the first anniversary, enough playwrights had addressed the topic that a three-day festival entitled “Brave New World: American Theater Responds to 9/11” could offer 50 new plays and songs at The Town Hall in New York.
One of those works was LaBute’s short play “Land of the Dead,” in which a woman has an abortion the day her husband is killed in the towers. The playwright followed it up by the end of 2002 with “The Mercy Seat,” set on the day after the attacks in which a World Trade Center worker contemplates using the tragedy to run away and start a new life with his lover.
Within a few years, theatergoers could also see “Portraits,” a collection of monologues by Jonathan Bell; Craig Wright’s “Recent Tragic Events,” about a blind date set the day after the attacks; “Omnium Gatherum,” by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, in which intellectuals gather at a dinner party to hash out the world’s problems.
There was also David Rimmer’s “New York,” in which more than a dozen people speak to a psychiatrist about survivor guilt; Brian Sloan’s “WTC View,” a man’s search for a roommate in the weeks following 9/11; and Jenny Schwartz’s “God’s Ear,” about how the death of a son shatters a family.
But theatergoers expecting more than these small, intimate, off-Broadway looks at 9/11 in subsequent years were out of luck. Perhaps it’s still too soon to really search for iconic works on the subject. The rawness of that day is still present, after all.
LaBute, who together with his two Sept. 11 plays has also written a monologue called “Windows on the World” about a man planning a new life before that horrific Tuesday morning, says that although he’s now grappled with 9/11 in three pieces, other playwrights are under no obligation to follow.
“Playwrights should ask questions but only the questions they want to ask and in the way they want to ask them,” he says. “From my point of view, no subject should be taboo or too sacred to discuss or write about. It all comes down to how well you handle your chosen topic.”
National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this story.